Discussion (SPOILERS)- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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It would be easy to think of the Hempstocks as the “triple goddess” (the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone) of popular mythology. In what ways do they conform to those roles? In what ways are they different?

The narrator has returned to his hometown for a funeral (we never learn whose). Do you think that framing his childhood story with a funeral gives this story a pessimistic outlook, rather than an optimistic one?

Because the narrator is male and most of the other characters are female, this story has the potential to become a stereotypical narrative where a male character saves the day. How does the story avoid that pitfall?

The story juxtaposes the memories of childhood with the present of adulthood. In what ways do children perceive things differently as adults? Do you think there are situations in which a child’s perspective can be more “truthful” than an adult’s?

One of Ursula Monkton’s main attributes is that she always tries to give people what they want. Why is this not always a good thing? What does Ursula want? How does Ursula use people’s desires against them to get what she wants?

Water has many roles in this story- it can give and take life, reveal and hide. How does it play these different roles?

One of the many motivators for the characters in this story is loneliness. What characters seem to suffer from loneliness? How do adults and children respond to loneliness in different ways? In the same ways?

On page 18, the narrator tells us that his father often burnt their toast and always ate it with apparent relish. He also tells us that later in life, his father admitted that he had never actually liked burnt toast, but ate it to avoid waste, and that his father’s confession made the narrator’s entire childhood feel like a lie: “it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.” What other “pillars of belief” from childhood does he discover to be false? How do these discoveries affect him? Are there any beliefs from your own childhood that you discovered to be false?

When the narrative returns to the present, Old Mrs. Hempstock tells our narrator, “You stand two of you lot next to each other, and you could be continents away for all it means anything” (p. 173). What does she mean by this? Why is it “easier” for people, our narrator especially, to forget certain things that are difficult to reconcile?

Though the narrator has a sister, he doesn’t seem to be particularly close to her. Why do you think it is that he has trouble relating to other children? Why do you think his sister is not an ally for him?

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What does a pond often represent to a child? What is the spiritual symbolism of an ocean?

Who do you think the trio of women represent for the narrator? How do they relate to the other three women in his life?

Were the fantastic moments real or just how the boy saw the world at the time? Why?

Do you remember the first time you felt unsafe? What had happened and how did you cope?

When were your parents’ flaws first revealed to you? How did that make you feel about yourself?

What experience did the boy go through that most closely related to your childhood?

What moment in Ocean turned you on edge the most? Why?

What do Lettie’s actions tell us about true friendship, whether we are young or old?

How do you think Ocean compares with Gaiman’s other works?

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Neil Gaiman never once uses the name of the main character. Did you notice this while reading the book? What reason do you think he had for doing that?

What do you think is going on in the narrator’s life when he returns to the lane? He was attending a funeral but what else is occurring in his life? How does this relate to what he experiences when he returns?

What is the book telling us about the trials of being middle aged?

What does the kitten represent at the beginning of the story? The kitten that appears later in the story? Do you feel these two are in some way related?

Why did the tenant kill himself at the beginning of the story? What did this have to do with anything else that happened in the story?

The narrator has very little control over his world, as he is very young. How do you think he grew in response to what he experienced with Ursula and the other realm?

What was Ursula’s reason for entering the narrator’s realm? Do you feel that Ursula was actually evil, or was it that we only knew her through the boy’s viewpoint?

The Hempstocks have supernatural powers. Are they witches? How are they alike and how are they different?

What was the narrator’s relationship to Lettie? Do you think it was an accident they met?

Explain the narrator’s relationship with his parents. Were they major characters in the story? In what way were they detrimental?

How do you feel about what Lettie did at the end of the flashback part of the book? How do you think things would have been different if she had stayed there?

It has been said that children make poor historians. Do you feel that the story was exactly the way he remembers it, or do you think he remembered through the mind of a child with an overactive imagination?

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Why doesn’t the main character have a name? Was this a purposeful strategy employed by the author? And to what purpose?

Neil Gaiman is well known for being raised in the Church of Scientology, but has distanced himself from the church since childhood. People are asserting that the Church’s influence can be seen in a lot of ways in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Does this change how you read the book? How and why?

One of the underlying tenets of the book is the difference between childhood and adulthood. If we were to remove the prologue and epilogue (and therefore silence the adult voice), how would the story change?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is officially classified as an adult novel- but what arguments could be made for it being young adult literature? Is it even important to distinguish between the two?

Gaiman is also famous for writing some pretty radical comics and graphic novels. Do you think this story would’ve been better or worse if it was illustrated?

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Things that are bigger on the inside. It’s curious that Gaiman wrote that wonderful episode of Doctor Who that focused on who and what the TARDIS really is, and brought back that notion of inner size to Ocean. There’s an obvious metaphor of how people are bigger on the inside, but it seems there is a deeper metaphor at work as well. Is the ocean Time Lord technology? Is it just a British thing, and colonists just don’t understand?

The extraordinary nature of ordinary objects. Think about the way in which Gaiman infuses ordinary objects (flapping canvas, duck ponds, coins, a good, hot meal) with extraordinary purpose. Is this a comment on the idea that there’s magic everywhere if you look close enough? In this world, even the overtly magical things have their roots in science (Mrs. Hempstock and her electron decay; dark matter and string theory). By grounding the mythos in modern scientific understanding of the natural world and filling in the scientific gaps with mythology, Gaiman blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Does that make the story feel more real? More possible?

Mother, maiden, crone. Entire books have been written about this, but as always, the importance is in how the story is told, not that it’s something new. Here’s an interesting hook for you: it’s the maiden that saves the boy, not the mother or the crone who should be the nominal protectors. Even in the context of the supernatural saviors, the cold practicality of the adult would let him go, while it’s the child who saves the child. Why?

Myth vs. Fairytale. At one point our young narrator (a helpless bookworm) says the following about mythology: “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than that. They just were.” Gaiman has shied away from calling this particular book a fairy tale. Would it be more accurate to call it a myth?

The role of adults. Doesn’t it just eat at you that the parents are given such a short shrift? This isn’t Gaiman’s first novel with that angle, and adults are classically the enemy or at least indifferent quantity in fairy tales. But there’s a clever disconnect here in the metaphor Gaiman gives that no one really grows up and is still the same child inside. Isn’t that metaphor the counterargument for the novel’s condemnation of the actions of the parents?

This book’s place in the canon. How does this rate to Neil Gaiman’s other books? Do you like it better than your favorite? Is this your new favorite? What is your favorite?

Why is the ending so sad? This ending should be happy- a novel that celebrates the wonder of being a child, argues that we always stay that child, but just makes you want to cry by the end. What if it is not a celebration of being a child, but a mourning of those who never are anything but for all their lives?

What’s that kid’s name? Our young narrator doesn’t have a name, actually. How do you feel about that? Cheap trick? Effective way to get you to relate? You didn’t notice at all?

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What is the kid’s name? And why don’t we know it?

Why hadn’t he been down the lane previously?

Who (or what) are those 3 ladies at the end of the lane?

Are we experiencing life inside an adult artist’s painting? Or a young child’s imagination?

Whose funeral was he attending?

Was the Hempstock farm a real place?

If Lettie was real… where did she go? Certainly not Australia.

Why didn’t the man remember that he’d been back to Hempstock farm in his twenties and then, again, in his thirties?

Why was the food at the Hempstocks’ so much better than at home?

Was the 7-year-old kid so weird that nobody would come to his birthday party?

CHRISTINA’S QUESTIONS

What is the book about?

“Ursula Monkton smiled, and the lightnings wreathed and writhed about her. She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty” p70. What does this mean?

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world” p89. Do you agree? Why or why not?

“Children, as I have said, use back ways and hidden paths, while adults take roads and official paths” p89. Is this true? Explain.

“…when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative” p92. What does this mean? Do you agree? Explain.

“Adults should not weep, I knew. They did not have mothers who would comfort them” p96. Do you think children believe this? Explain.

“She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Ocean, and could not have told you why” p130. Who do you think the cat is? What is the cat’s significance?

“Death happens to all of us” p131. Why does Gaiman state it this way rather than, “Everyone dies”? What is the significance of changing an individual’s experience to an individual being acted upon as if the individual takes a passive role in the event?

“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear” p133. Do you think this is true? Do you think most people believe the opposite, that a person’s life is ultimately a pass or fail situation? Are there consequences? Explain.

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